Jason Donald, Dalila (Jonathan Cape, 2017)
An interview with Jason Donald
By Lynnda Wardle
Jason Donald’s second novel, Dalila, tells the story of a young Kenyan asylum seeker who flees her rapist uncle and violence in post-election Kenya to find sanctuary in the UK. Arriving in a cold, hostile London, she is sent onto Glasgow by the immigration authorities. She is told by other asylum seekers that this is the worst place to be sent to—colder, more racist and more dangerous even than London. Dalila begins her new life in a high-rise block of flats in Ibrox; the beginning of a new journey where she will meet fellow asylum seekers, charity workers, neighbours and a new and sinister character: the Asylum System itself.
This is a story about refugees that is seldom told. Donald has taken on the ambitious task of focusing on what happens after someone arrives in the UK and applies for asylum. The perils of the land and sea crossing to reach a place of safety may be over, but a new set of challenges confront Dalila as she wrestles with the complex bureaucracy that assumes that everyone is lying until they can prove otherwise. Donald’s writing is unsentimental and direct. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Dalila is an engaging character; smart, funny and likeable; and we are on her side, rooting for her as she makes sense of the strange world she has landed in:
They remind her of the pigeons in Nairobi.
Pigeons – same …
Down on the pavement two Syrian boys share a smoke
Boys acting brave – same.
Red postboxes – different.
I have arranged to meet Donald in Govan where much of Dalila’s story takes place. He has suggested that we walk the area where the novel is set, four or so blocks across Ibrox, to see up close the streets where Dalila’s story I set. It is a sunny April day, but there is a sharp wind and we are wrapped up against the cold. We haven’t taken into consideration that Rangers and Partick Thistle are playing a derby at Ibrox. It’s a perfect day for a game—the fans spill across the streets toward the stadium, scarves snapping in the breeze; a festive atmosphere. We cross paths with a cheery brace of fathers and their kids in matching kit as we head towards the block of high flats on Whitefield Road close to where Dalila is housed when she first arrives in Glasgow.
Donald tells me that he wanted to write a book that reflected his own experience of living in Glasgow. Born in Dundee, he moved to Pretoria when he was 3 years old (his mother is South African and his father Scottish). Donald moved back to Dundee when he was seventeen and shortly after they moved to Scotland, his parents divorced. “It was as though I had made a dramatic shift from being a child to being an adult in a very short space of time and everything that I had taken for granted was shattered.”
This early dislocation would give him a personal view of what it is like to have one’s life suddenly uprooted and moved to a new place and culture. Donald studied English Literature and Philosophy at St Andrews University and, in 2005, graduated from Glasgow University’s Creative Writing Master’s Degree programme with distinction. His supervisor was Janice Galloway (“I was more like her apprentice,” Donald smiles) and his novel Choke Chain (Jonathan Cape), set in South Africa, was published in 2009 to critical acclaim.
I ask him if he felt that his second novel should be set in South Africa, given that the first was such a success. He laughs and acknowledges that there was some pressure to go back and do a sequel, “Everyone wanted to know what happened to Kevin, but for me the story finished with Alex,” he says.
Studying creative writing in a city like Glasgow, he felt the influence of writers such as James Kelman and Alasdair Gray weighing on him powerfully. As a writer, the temptation was to imitate, but Donald knew that he needed to find his own voice, to tell his own story of living in Glasgow.
At this time, during the Noughties, he was living in a flat in Ibrox, and he points the building out to me—a red sandstone terrace near the high rise where Dalila lives in the novel. Here, Donald worked for 8 years, teaching ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) at Cardonald College and it was in conversation with his students, many of them asylum seekers from all over the world, that he began to think more deeply about the issues they face when they arrive in Glasgow. Sometimes students would disappear from his class and he would not know what had happened to them, only to find out that they had been deported. He began to see how mercurial the asylum system is; the arbitrary and inexplicable nature of decisions handed down to ordinary people. People are trapped in a system that is completely opaque to them.
George Saunders in a recent interview with the Guardian speaks of the writer’s job in allowing the “understory” to emerge from the “overstory”. In Dalila, the overstory lays bare the lives of those struggling under the asylum process in Glasgow, lives largely hidden from public view. It is the story of people filling in forms, attending lawyer’s meetings, court hearings and weekly signings at the Home Office in Brand Street. It is the story of those who support them; the volunteers, agency workers, friends and neighbours they meet along the way. The desired outcome, is of course, to be able to stay here, to receive their “Leave to Remain”, that is their permission to live in the UK. (In the strange Home Office-speak – using the word “leave” right alongside “remain.”) But for most the decision will be negative and if they are unable to appeal further, deportation is the outcome.
We turn into Brand Street past the Little Stars Nursery (“where the stars of the future shine”) in Cessnock. Three solid brick Immigration buildings with grey metal trim are visible behind the steel railings. The sign “Festival Court” is framed by the branch of a cherry tree in full blossom. There is nothing festive about this place—this is where Dalila and countless other asylum seekers come weekly to sign and “report.” It also marks the final border between here and there – between safety and being sent back to their country of origin. People are routinely detained here, right at the point of signing, and are first taken to Dungavel Detention Centre in Lanarkshire and then onto Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in England, before being put on a plane out of the country.
Donald shows me around the back of the building where the dreaded white deportation vans are parked, and points out the way that the rear entrance is structured so that the vans can drive right up to the doorway leaving no escape route. It is hard to imagine these scenes of fear and desperation while standing in the bright spring sunshine, with the sound of football songs and cheers in the distance.
I ask if he thinks that this is a political novel, dealing as it does, with the topic of immigration.
When I started writing, connecting with my students, it wasn’t with the idea of writing a book about this issue, rather, it was to write a book showing an obscure and unusual window onto a city that you already know. The reader would see Glasgow from a different perspective.
What he saw happening to his students affected him. This was a Glasgow hidden to most people, but visible to him. He began to volunteer at the local Unity Centre to learn more about the process of asylum. It was a part of the city’s life that he wanted others to see and to experience and the idea for the novel began to take hold.
Donald is aware too of the pitfalls of writing this kind of book about an “issue.” He is not sure that a writer’s task is to give a “voice to the voiceless.” Of course, there are many writers imprisoned for this very thing— writing is a political act. But Donald argues that the writer’s role is to encourage the voiceless to speak, to share their own stories and for agents and publishers to seek out these voices and create ways for them to be heard. There should be more blogs, readings, translated stories and anthologies showcasing the work of asylum seekers and refugees, he argues. It would of course be difficult for an asylum seeker to do what Donald himself has just done – to publish a book about the asylum process. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work and the very act of producing a book could get them deported. Perhaps in the absence of these voices and their stories, it is just as well those who can speak and are able to, are writing stories like Dalila.
And writing stories about asylum poses its own peculiar difficulties. As Donald admits, “the story of an asylum seeker on a journey is a full story – it’s a story on a plate. It’s wonderful resource material, but as a writer you have to be careful how you use it, because it’s a classic journey story: horror to redemption. It’s too easy.” Some of the books already written about the asylum journey (here he mentions Dave Eggers’s mammoth tale What is the What) are concerned with the journey to safety, but once the refugee arrives, there is very little shown about what happens next. Donald argues that the writer’s duty is to find the stories less told. He remarks: “It’s less sexy to look at the machine but may be more important.”
In the case of traversing the asylum process for Dalila, the journey may be dull but it is dangerous; a life and death struggle obscured by the boredom of form filling and paper shuffling and inscrutable Home Office decisions that arrive in the feared brown envelopes. Telling their stories over and over to officials and agency workers, asylum seekers have their stories reduced to “case studies” and Donald wanted in Dalila to make these stories real again, through the first person, present tense narrative of Dalila herself.
Coming from South Africa and growing up during the worst years of apartheid, but being too young to really understand what was going on, Donald admits that writing the novel was some way of returning to issues from the past. We discuss the post-Brexit landscape and the increasingly negative rhetoric around refugees in the popular press.
The fear that people experience has been ignited by the storytelling in the press – a lot of the fears about immigration have nothing to do with immigrants. We are going through austerity but it wasn’t the Pakistanis who took away the bus service to your village. It wasn’t the Polish people who shut down your library, it wasn’t Syrians who closed down the local factory and moved it east to make a bigger profit … These concerns are genuine, but the focus is shifted on the immigrants to blame them.
While Dalila’s battles with the asylum process are a necessary and important tale to tell, it is near the end of the novel that the book opens up, when Daniel, Dalila’s friend, gives her his views on the idea of Ubuntu, on being human and the purpose of suffering, and I sensed the “understory” (In George Saunders’s taxonomy) being revealed. As Donald explains to me, Ubuntu is about people being connected in ways that transcend geography or space, taking care of each other so that they meet each other’s needs directly. Or, as Daniel explains the concept to Dalila:
Most of all they want to remove us, to send us away. Why? Because our suffering frightens them. Because they see what they have lost. Because they refuse to accept that they are just like us. […] I sometimes even wonder if Ubuntu is really about loss, says Daniel. If we understand that we are all losing, then we can sit with each other in our loss. We may find one another through what we share. This is the greatest gift of Ubuntu.
Our walk takes us past the bright blue shop front of the old Unity Centre (the real model for the Solidarity Centre in the novel where Dalila makes friends with Daniel and the other volunteers and herself begins to help others fill in their forms and make sense of their asylum journey). Its door is blocked by a rusted car bumper and a mattress. The new Unity Centre, two doors down, (UNI-Y, grins the gap-toothed sign) is shut today as it is a Saturday, but this is where every weekday volunteers advise and support asylum seekers through their appeal process including those who have been made homeless and destitute.
We finish our fictional dérive at the very place the novel ends, on a patch of ground opposite Ibrox Library. This piece of ground marks a powerful moment in the novel, an intersection of the ordinary and the terrible, and the meeting of other powerful, invisible forces; the colonial legacy that brings a Kenyan woman to the UK for sanctuary, the place where she connects with the wider world via social media on the library’s computers and the place where Daniel searches for information about Dalila later in the novel. This small piece of pavement marks the confluence of political and personal story. It is the place, where, if one looks closely, the hidden stories of Glasgow may offer themselves up. Across the Clyde, the Science Centre needle, a beacon of new technology, points skyward. Two streets away, the solid, unassuming Festival Court is the bland face of terror for many who have come to seek safety here. The River Clyde, separating the north of the city from south, has its own submerged history, remnants of its glorious shipbuilding days in the Fairfield Shipyard Museum on Govan Road. It strikes me that I am standing on something both ancient and modern; a place where old stories and new collide, where the understories may be visible to those who look carefully enough.
Out of curiosity I google the Rangers-Partick Thistle match result a few days later (Rangers 2, Partick Thistle 0). Rangers’ official website lists the crowd attending the match that day as 49,748 and I find out that a stand at Ibrox can seat roughly 8,000 people. It reminds me of another figure I came across when writing this: in 2013 (the last official survey of these figures) Scotland had around 2,400 asylum seekers living here. Even with the additional 1200 Syrian refugees offered sanctuary by Scottish Local authorities in 2015 onwards, the numbers offered safety in Scotland are very small. Not even enough to half fill the Broomloan stand at Ibrox.
The film rights to Dalilia have been sold and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Atonement) has written the script.
Dalila will also shortly be available on Audible
Jason Donald runs Write Time Retreats for writers wanting to refine their craft near Geneva, in the Swiss Alps.
Donald, Jason (2009). Choke Chain. Jonathan Cape, London.
INFORMATION AND RESOURCES (not exhaustive)
Scottish Government (2017). ‘New Scots Background and Context’ (Scottish Government’s integration strategy)
Scottish Refugee Council (General information about refugee issues and policy)
Bridges Programmes (Integration for refugees through the workplace and the Refugee Doctor’s Programme)
Refugee Survival Trust (Dealing with issues of destitute and homelessness for asylum seekers)
Glasgow still does not have a night shelter for destitute women. It is an ongoing problem. If you would like to help with this or be involved in some way, please contact Phill at the Glasgow Night Shelter See website above)
Unity Centre (The Unity Centre gives practical support and solidarity to all asylum seekers and other migrants in Scotland)
Scottish Detainee Visitors (Visiting and supporting those that are detained at Dungavel Detention Centre)
Refuweegee (Welcome messages and packs for new refugees and asylum seekers in Glasgow)
Weekend Club, Interfaith Glasgow (Weekend activities for refugees and asylum seekers and new migrants in Glasgow)
Scottish Faiths Actions for Refugees (Co-ordinates and promote action by faith communities in Scotland to support asylum seekers and refugees)